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Bush needs stronger theme

George Bush has been getting some powerful messages. He needs to get better at delivering one.

On Tuesday, Republicans in New Hampshire told Bush they are mighty upset about the way things are going. Last November, the voters in Pennsylvania delivered a similar message when they rejected his handpicked candidate, a former attorney general, for the U.S. Senate.

Folks in the Bush administration and re-election campaign insist they are getting the message _ loud and clear. The problem is, their man doesn't have one to send back.

Throughout this winter of discontent, Bush has been looking for the words to let voters know that he understands they are worried, and to reassure them that he knows how to make things better.

So far, no good. You know things are bad when nearly 40 percent of New Hampshire Republicans vote to replace the president with a newspaper and TV commentator. Pat Buchanan got more votes Tuesday than any of the Democrats who are running for president.

The Bush campaign already has tried at least four themes, or some variation of them. But ultimately, there's probably one message that holds any real promise for the president. It is the same message that has served Paul Tsongas, who won the Democratic primary, so well.

"Stay the course." This is a typical theme for presidents seeking re-election _ Nixon wanted "Four More Years" _ and it's where Bush started. As the economy kept sliding into the ditch, Bush first tried to reassure the country that things weren't really so bad, and that good times were just around the corner.

But polls show that two-thirds of Americans believe the country is on the "wrong track," so staying on it was not very attractive. On Dec. 17, the White House itself recognized that the country was in a recession.

"I care." By the time Bush went to New Hampshire for a visit in January, he was telling people he knew they were hurting. "I probably have made mistakes in assessing the fact that the economy would recover," Bush said, by way of apology. "Message: I care."

Answer: We don't, said many Republicans. An exit poll Tuesday found that among people who picked a candidate based on whether he "cares about people like me," Buchanan beat Bush by a 3-to-1 margin.

"I won the war. The other guy's a bum." This slogan comes compliments of Mario Cuomo, who would rather kibitz than campaign this year. Still, it was Desert Storm that sent Bush's approval ratings into that stratosphere last year, and Bush is starting to talk more about Buchanan.

But the Persian Gulf war is old news. In that same survey of New Hampshire voters as they left the polls, the war finished dead last in a ranking of issues among Democrats, and just above "foreign trade" among Republicans. The No.

1 issue, in both parties, was the economy.

Bush might get some mileage by making the war an example of his leadership. Sen. Connie Mack, the honorary chairman of Bush's Florida campaign, suggests something like this: "I had a plan. I stuck to that plan. And it was a success." But Mack says, "I don't think you can dwell on the Persian Gulf war."

"It's not my fault." Bush started setting up this line with his State of the Union speech. He laid out his plan for economic recovery and told Congress to pass it by March 20. That way, if things don't improve, he can blame the Democrats who run Congress.

Congress has image problems that make it a likely target, but this theme has risks for the president, too. "I think the American voters are growing increasingly disgusted with finger-pointing," said Linda DiBall, a Republican pollster. "They want someone to stand above the crowd and take responsibility for what's happening."

Her advice for Bush? "He has to talk about the direction he wants to take the country." Which brings us to .

.

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"Follow me, boys _ and girls." Bingo. Bush must first connect with the voters' concerns (See "I care," above), but then go beyond them. He wants another term. Voters ask how he would use it. The campaign is, after all, a contest of leadership.

The plan Bush set out in the State of the Union speech was supposed to inspire great confidence, but in New Hampshire, at least, large numbers of Republicans would not line up behind it.

Maybe the design is flawed; Bush always has believed in a capital gains tax cut more than most Americans and many economists. Or, it could be that the plan was better than the sales pitch for it. We'll be hearing more about the president's "growth package" in coming weeks.

But consider what a plan did for Paul Tsongas. He had no broad political base, no national reputation, no great oratorical power. All he had was an 85-page booklet, "A Call to Economic Arms."

"America is greatness," that treatise begins. "It is the pursuit of excellence and the fulfillment of human capacity. America is not the casual acceptance of economic decline and social disintegration. Yet, that is what some are prepared to endure. We are better than what we are being asked to be by our leaders."

On the strength of that theme _ he has little else _ Tsongas won the New Hampshire Democratic primary Tuesday. If the right theme can make Paul Tsongas look like a president, imagine what it could do for George Bush.

Up next:Correction

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